Credit goes to the Department of Environmental Conservation and its Region 5 facilitators for including a “break-out” session on Permits at its late July High Peaks-Route 73 stakeholder meeting at the Keene Central School. After all, the very word “permit” has been an electrified “third rail” (hazardous, indeed) topic for years.
That was not always the case, however. In 1978, the first draft of a High Peaks Unit Management Plan included a section on “individual user controls” with eight alternatives along a spectrum ranging from mandatory registration and reservation permit systems, to no controls at all. Alternative C, reservation or permit systems, stated that “through past experience the U.S. Forest Service has found that a permit system is one of the best ways of gathering user information concerning an individual management area.”
The 1978 draft UMP went on to recommend that a “free permit system should be initiated in the eastern High Peaks with no effort to limit numbers of people using the area for at least three years. Data will be analyzed. If at some time in the future it is determined that numbers of people using the area will have to be controlled, even just for certain high use weekends, the mechanism will already be in place to do so.”
Years went by before another draft UMP for the High Peaks emerged, but the pressures on the High Peaks remained high. The 1994 Draft UMP stated that “Wilderness permits are a key management tool for protecting wilderness resources and ensuring high quality visitor experiences.” The 1994 draft required an overnight camping permit for all visitors in the eastern zone of the High Peaks; describe the prerequisites of a permitting or reservation system, and stated that these systems were extensively deployed in the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and other public land agencies in the U.S. and Canada.
This background material and permit requirements were removed when another draft UMP came out in 1996; and it was gone from the final, approved UMP in 1999. Why was all of this background on permits removed? It had nothing to do with who held the Governor’s job, clearly, as the long time span involves six different administrations of both parties. Primarily, it is due to steep resistance to even robust discussion of permit systems, much less their study and implementation, within parts of the DEC and within parts of organized, outspoken hiking groups. Permits were seen then in DEC Ray Brook and in Albany, as many see them now, as unnecessary, onerous, unworkable and a violation of the principle that wilderness managers should always employ the least intrusive, preferably indirect method for managing wilderness users. And that is a solid, well accepted principle.
The problem is that in other popular, heavily used and impacted Wilderness areas in the country permit systems have proven necessary, workable, useable and, while imperfect, largely successful in reducing damage to wilderness resources and assuring more people of the opportunity to experience solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation. Despite diligent application of indirect methods and many fine educational programs, overuse and degradation of the wilderness character and the wilderness experience in portions of the eastern High Peaks Wilderness existed in the 1970s, persisted in the 1980s and 1990s, subsided briefly, and then grew sharply after 2005. By 2015, hikers registering at the Mt. Van Hoevenberg trailhead into the High Peaks had increased 62% over that decade. Indirect methods have been very useful and successful, but insufficient. Summit Stewards now are faced with the nearly impossible task of annually trying to speak to well over 30,000 people annually about how to behave on the fragile alpine summits, not the 9,000 they could manageably interact with in 1990.
The final, approved 1999 High Peaks UMP provides a spare, out of context paragraph with no reference to other permit systems from which to draw lessons at the National Park Service, USDA Forest Service, or other places. Nonetheless, it represented a DEC commitment. It states: “The Department will form a working group in YEAR THREE to develop the structure and implementation process for a camping permit system. The working group will afford opportunity for public input and comment. Final recommendations to the Commissioner of Environmental Conservation will be made no later than YEAR FIVE. The decision to implement a permit system will require an amendment to this plan and will afford opportunity for public review and comment.”
Years THREE and FIVE passed with no action on this management commitment. 20 years further on, no working group has ever been created, no public input and comment opportunities been made available, and no recommendations to the Commissioner ever submitted. 41 years have passed since the 1978 Draft High Peaks UMP first recommended that a permit system be initiated.
So, fast forward to 2019. Again, credit goes to DEC Region 5 for bringing the topic back for stakeholder discussion this past July. What I found hopeful during the Permit break-out group was that DEC staff seemed very aware of other permit systems in place or underway elsewhere in the country. They brought up the U.S. Forest Service plan to significantly expand their pilot permit or limited entry system for the Three Sisters, Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Washington Wilderness areas of Oregon’s Cascade Range. The Salem Statesman-Journal has been reporting on this topic for some time thanks to writer Zach Urness. Urness writes (May 10 2019 edition) that just since 2011, visitors to Three Sisters Wilderness tripled; visitors to Mt. Washington Wilderness rose 119%. That intense increase led the Forest Service to significantly update its pilot permit system dating to 1995. As of 2020, a permit to camp anywhere in these areas, 450,000 acres in all, will be needed. A day hiking permit will also be required to hike from the most popular 19 trailheads. For each trailhead, a quota of daily permits for day use and overnight camping will be established and a fee will be charged of about $6. Permits will be issued online, but a certain number of permits will be held back each day for same-day or next-day use. Urness writes (Salem Statesman-Journal, 5/10/19) that:
“The decision, which has come together over the past two and a half years, is a more scaled-back version of an earlier plan issued this year.
“The final version limits day-hikes on the 19 most popular trails, in contrast from the originally planned 30. ‘As we went through the public meetings, the thing we heard consistently was that folks only wanted us to focus on the most high use areas now and then adjust in the future,’ said Matt Peterson, who led the project for the Forest Service.
“Even so, the plan represents one of the nation’s largest efforts to conserve land from overcrowding by limiting access. While many wild places across the West limit overnight use, few also limit day-use.”
Urness’ article goes on to quote the Forest Service that further adjustments to this “Limited Entry” permit system are inevitable, but stresses that such systems work. He cites early pilot permit systems for popular trails in the Three Sisters and Mt. Jefferson Wilderness areas: “Both places were becoming crowded and struggling with overuse in the early 1990s. But after the permit system, both have stabilized, seeing recovering forest, more wildlife and more solitude,” writes Urness.
Maine’s Baxter State Park also came up in conversation during the DEC break-out session on permits. I recall many visits I once made to Baxter’s Mt. Katahdin or to lesser peaks in that 220,000-acre wilderness. Parking permits for day-use and overnight camping permits have been required for decades. Reservations can be made online, by mail, or by phone. While the process requires advance preparation, it is not onerous. It is very true that Baxter has very few entry points, making peripheral control of recreational users much easier than it would be for the High Peaks. But the rationale for the system Baxter employs should be the same for us in the High Peaks. To the question “why do we do this,” Baxter State Park staff responds: “we limit access to Katahdin to preserve the fragile alpine ecosystem and your experience as a visitor. Remember, as trustees of Governor Baxter’s deeds, we are charged with doing this in perpetuity, which is a very long time.”
We have our own fragile alpine ecosystem, and a state constitution envied by all other states mandating that these lands “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands.” Our NYS DEC are the trustees of New York’s Article XIV, forever wild, and (with the APA) of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan. The Master Plan anticipates adoption of limits “by permit or other appropriate means of the total number of persons permitted to have access to or remain in a wilderness area or portion thereof during a specified period.” DEC staff are as knowledgeable and as competent to undertake this significant challenge as any in the USDA Forest Service or any at Baxter State Park. It’s time to undertake a well-informed pilot permit or limited entry system as part of a comprehensive management approach discussed at the Keene Valley meeting.
Photo of High Peaks and Marcy.